Origins of Saint Patrick’s Day

This article contains information about the narrative materials from which we draw information about Saint Patrick, as well as some information about the origins of Saint Patrick’s Day.

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The majority of modern scholars generally believe that Maewyn Succat, more commonly known as St. Patrick, lived between 385 and the 17th of March, 461. There are only two surviving sources which are typically believed to contain historically reliable information about St Patrick. These two works are titled ‘Confessio’ and ‘Letter to Coroticus’. He is believed by many to have brought Christianity to Ireland.

There have been many legends associated with this character as well. According to (1), he has claimed to have raised people from the dead, to have miraculously provided food for hungry landlocked sailors in a desolate area, and to have purified Ireland of snakes. He is also widely known for his association with the shamrock. He purportedly used the three leafed plant to explain to non-believers the concept of a 3-in-1 god, where the 3 leaves shared a single stock. This concept of the shamrock with St Patrick first appears in writing in 1726.

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, in honor of the death of Saint Patrick. The first St. Patrick’s Day on record took place in 1762, although there is evidence that Saint Patrick’s feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the early 1600s. This celebration in the USA became widespread during the 19th century when there was a large increase in Irish immigration into the States. The celebration spread to Ireland in the 20th century. From what I can tell, the Saint Patrick’s Day celebration began in the USA and has spread across the world from there.

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The two works mentioned earlier, ‘Confessio’ and ‘Letter to Corticus’, can be found within 8 surviving source manuscripts. These 8 manuscripts in chronological order from “youngest” to “oldest” are as follows;

1 – The Book of Armagh: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 52

Generally believed to have been created in the 9th century, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 17th century.

2 – Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 17626

Generally believed to have been created in the 10th century, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 19th century.

3 – London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero E.1

Generally believed to have been created in the 10th-11th centuries, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 16th/17th century.

4 – Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 1391

Generally believed to have been created in the 11th century, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 19th century (???) when mentioned in an 1886 publication.

5 – Salisbury, Cathedral Library, MS 221

Generally believed to have been created in the 11th-12th centuries, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 17th century.

6 – Salisbury, Cathedral Library, MS 223

Generally believed to have been created in the 11th-12th century, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 17th century.

7 – Arras, Bibliothèque municipale, 1391

Generally believed to have been created in the 12th century, it does not appear out of obscurity until the 17th century.

8 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlison B 480

I think this one was created/compiled in the 17th century and is a collection of notes based on other manuscripts. Please email me information on this if you have knowledge and would like me to update this article.

There are 6 printed editions of these manuscripts available on the website of source (2). They are;

1656 – Sir James Ware’s ‘eidtio princeps’

1668 – The Acta Sanctorum edition by Daniel Papebroch from 1668 (‘v’)

1905 – The first critical edition by Newport J.D. White

1913 – The diplomatic transcription of the Book of Armagh by John Gwynn

1937 – The facsimile print of the Book of Armagh by Edward Gwynn

1950/51 – Ludwig Bieler’s ‘canonical edition’

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I have been learning how to navigate a website which creates useful charts and infographs, however, I cannot download my creations until I buy a subscription. As I have not bought a subscription yet, I have had to screenshot the chart I made for this article over the course of two pictures. These two images create the above two part full chart.

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Conclusions;

The figure of Saint Patrick does not appear out of obscurity in written records until after 1500, with most manuscripts appearing after 1600. The first recorded celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day was in the USA in 1762, and from that point spread across the world. The official holiday arrived in Ireland in the 20th century.

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References;

(1) – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Patrick

(2) – https://www.confessio.ie/#

(3) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day

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